Orchestral Music Review

Lynn Harrell Enthralls EMF Audience with Festival Orchestra

July 12, 2007 - Greensboro, NC:

It's not too often that band and orchestra students get the chance to work with the biggest and best conductors and performers in the fields to which they aspire.

The kids who study music at Eastern Music Festival attend lessons, master classes and concerts with a faculty of musical luminaries, in addition to rehearsing and performing standard orchestral repertoire. And with the Great Performers series, in which a special guest gives a concert supported by the Festival Orchestra, the lucky students have the rare opportunity to perform on the same stage with world-class musicians like guitarist Sharon Isbin, cellist Lynn Harrell, and flutist James Galway.

Grammy Award-winning cellist and conductor Harrell's debut with the 2007 Festival Orchestra was reserved for the second half of the concert. The first half consisted of the Festival Orchestra with conductor Robert Moody at the helm performing two well-known orchestral staples: Hungarian composer Modest Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain," and a suite arrangement of Leonard Bernstein's Candide. Guilford College's Dana Auditorium was packed with students and concertgoers, eager for Harrell's performance, but the Festival Orchestra performed these pieces with impressive maturity and precision.

The 1886 Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov arrangement of the tumultuous "Night on Bald Mountain" entered modern popular culture as the penultimate piece in Disney's animated orchestral survey Fantasia in 1940. The piece originated as music to depict a "witches' Sabbath" and appeared in many unpublished or unfinished versions throughout Mussorgsky's later life; only after Rimsky-Korsakov's arrangement in 1886 did the piece become the canonical work it is today. The energetic but controlled performance of the piece's violent themes and anxious trills demonstrated the orchestra's confidence playing together, and their intonation was more consistent than that of some college-level orchestras. Next came Charlie Harmon's suite of music from Leonard Bernstein's comic operetta Candide; the performance of the sprawling work didn't present quite the same level of control and transitional skill as the previous piece, but its various themes were well-executed and several members of the orchestra shone in extended solos.

Finally, after a brief intermission, Moody and the Festival Orchestra took the stage to welcome their celebrated soloist. Harrell was set to perform Antonín Dvořák's 1895 Cello Concerto in B Minor, Op. 104, a highly detailed, complex tripartite work whose themes exude extreme emotions, from the lament-turned-love themes in the Allegro section to the lachrymose climaxes of the Adagio ma non troppo to the mighty, almost fascistic strength of the march theme in the third movement, Finale: Allegro moderato.   

Despite his resemblance to a smaller-scale Saint Nick, Harrell exuded intensity even before he'd played a note. The Allegro began with a buildup from a tentatively soft, low woodwind entrance to a horn-fueled peak; after solo appearances with a gentler, more songlike theme from the horn and clarinet, Harrell took the lead with the original theme. His sound — on what is a very petite and no doubt extraordinarily rare instrument — relies less on the low, lyrical style of which the cello is capable than a sort of at-the-limit focus that takes advantage of resonant, earthy tones as well as shrill, otherworldly ones. When Harrel rakes the bow across his top two strings for an aggressive double stop, the odd, buzzy sonority isn't what you expect. Sometimes it appears as though he'll break a string with the emotional tension imbued into the pianissimo wail at an introspective point in a cadenza.

The second movement picks up the somber mood from the first movement, but a new theme brings with it a drastically different character in Harrell's playing. His flexibility in every register acts in service of the tortuous misery behind the music — although Harrell has played this piece countless times, his performance projects such a unique interpretation of Dvořák's work that it sounds like a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. But Harrell's virtuosity and unique sound don't sound out of place with the fine young musicians of the Festival Orchestra: Harrell headbangs along with a particularly well-executed violin soli, and you can tell he's enjoying the performance as much as the students are.

The concerto's finale begins with a stern, march-like theme over a stoic pizzicato bass line. This theme is far more rhythmic than any before it, and the building aggression as the piece progresses sounds almost demented when Harrell charges ahead with the theme. A momentary lapse into a more relaxed theme, along with solo clarinet, serves as another opportunity for a wild, highly dramatic peak. After another lyrical section, an up-tempo, somewhat jocular theme emerges; this is concluding material, but four sedate measures of Dvořák's song "Kez duch muj sam" ("Leave me alone"), from one of his earlier works, appear in honor of his deceased sister-in-law before a burst of glory concludes the piece. Harrell capped his exceptionally well-received performance with an encore that cello legend Pablo Casals often used to end his own performances. The simple, bittersweet "Song of the Birds" showed Harrell's more carefree side, but the hymn-like music never escaped his confident control.

At the end of the night, it became clear that the concert as a whole was a greater musical achievement than the sum of its parts. A solid performance by the Festival Orchestra alone and with Harrell marked a significant accomplishment for the group, and Harrell's performance can only be described as exhilarating. The most inspiring sounds of the evening, however, came at those moments of musical communion between the world-famous virtuoso and young musicians really learning to harness their talents and drive for art.